Although they may still be in third place, two points behind leaders Arsenal, on Monday night Chelsea made their case for being potential champions when they became the first team to beat Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium this season. When Jose Mourinho’s made comments about negative tactics following his team’s 0-0 draw with West Ham, most people (including me) expected him to ignore his own words and adopt a defensive approach against a team that had a 100% record at home heading into the fixture. However, Mourinho once again proved himself to be a tactical genius and, whether you love him or hate him, the one thing you have to do is respect the Portuguese manager, whose game plan resulted in a 1-0 victory for Chelsea that kept them in the title race. Although the scoreline was narrow, this was no smash and grab by the London club, who fully deserved the three points and hit the woodwork several times and were unlucky not to win by three of four goals, with Branislav Ivanovic the only one who did actually find the back of the net. Of the three teams in the title race – Arsenal moved back to the top thanks to a 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace, with Alex Oxelaide-Chamberlain scoring both of the goals – the Gunners have maybe the most balanced starting XI, while City have the best squad, although they did badly miss Fernandinho and Sergio Aguero on Monday night. However, Chelsea have Mourinho and even though Arsene Wenger and Pelligrini are both great managers, the Portuguese coach has a clear edge and if he was in charge of either of the other two clubs, I believe they would be running away with the league by this point. His brilliance may yet be enough to help him overcome a lack of a free-scoring striker to claim his third Premiership crown in his fourth full season at Stamford Bridge.
The board at Manchester United might be wishing that they had ignored Sir Alex Ferguson’s recommendation for his successor and instead looked to Mourinho, as David Moyes has been unable to keep them in the top three in his first season in charge. Last Saturday, it was Stoke City who beat the Red Devils 2-1, with Charlie Adam claiming both goals, though the first took a heavy deflection and was subsequently chalked up against Michael Carrick. Prior to last weekend, Stoke had not taken three points from a match since before Christmas and had not beaten United since 1984 – a common theme this season as Newcastle (1972), West Brom (1978) and Everton (1992) all broke lengthy ducks of securing a victory at Old Trafford, while Swansea defeated them for the first time in their history and they have lost 8 times in the league in 2013/14, which is only one fewer than their most ever in a single Premiership campaign, with 14 fixtures still remaining. Juan Mata, Robin Van Persie and Wayne Rooney all lined up for United at the Brittania Stadium, so Moyes cannot even point to being without his best players and it remains to be seen how long the Glazers stay convinced that the Scot is still the man for the job.
Swansea have not waited too long to decide their manager was no longer good enough and opted to part company with Michael Laudrup, 12 months on from him winning the first major trophy in the club’s history. Since lifting the League Cup, the Swans have failed to regain any sort of form in the Premiership and last weekend’s 2-0 defeat at West Ham means that they are only two points above the relegation zone – although in a tight table, they are still up in 12th place – and the board of the Welsh club decided they could not risk the downward spiral continuing given the financial loss that would come from demotion from the top flight. Two months ago, Laudrup was being touted as a potential replacement for Andre Villas-Boas at Spurs and Swansea were unwilling to lose him, yet a short time later he is considered not good enough to take the team forward and his position has been given to club captain Gary Monk for the foreseeable future (as in, he will remain in the job if he does well, much like Tim Sherwood at Spurs). Meanwhile, that victory for West Ham moved them to within a point of safety, though they will be without Andy Carroll for their next three matches, as he was sent off for swinging an arm at Chico Flores, a harsh decision as he barely touched the Spanish defender, but the playacting from Chico was enough to get the striker a red card, which as been upheld by two review panels.
The relegation battle continues to be a tight contest with the bottom 10 clubs separated by only six points, with Fulham currently sitting at the foot of the table after they lost for the fourth time in succession last Saturday, 3-0 at home against Southampton. The Saints scored all three of their goals in the second half but looked far better than their opponents throughout the match and the Cottagers are reportedly now considering replacing Rene Meulensteen – who only took over from Martin Jol on December 1st – with Alan Curbishley, the current technical director at the club, as they search for anyone who can mould the squad into a team that can get enough points to avoid their first ever relegation from the Premiership. Two other teams in the bottom half did enjoy victories, as Cardiff got their first league win under Ole Gunnar Solskjær, coming from behind to beat Norwich 2-1, with new signing Wilfred Zaha providing a spark for the Welsh side and Craig Bellamy scoring for his seventh different Premiership team; and Sunderland defeated Newcastle for the third straight time Tyne-Wear derby, prevailing 3-0 at St. James’ Park. Nevertheless, therethere was some good news for Geordies in a week that Yohan Cabaye was sold to Paris Saint-Germain and they lost to their biggest rivals, as Joe Kinnear left the club after 8 months as Director of Football, during which time he made no permanent signings.
Finally, in the race for fourth place and the final Champions League qualification spot, Everton got back in contention with their Merseyside rivals, as they scored twice in the last 15 minutes to beat Aston Villa 2-1; while Liverpool were held 1-1 by West Brom at the Hawthorns, with Kolo Toure gifting the Baggies an equalizer after Daniel Sturridge had given the Reds the lead. Tottenham are still technically in contention for fourth, though their lackluster 1-1 draw away at Hull – who had lost their previous four without scoring a goal – did nothing to suggest that they will remain in the hunt for too much longer.
The races for the title, Champions League qualification, and to avoid relegation will all take shape over the next five days, as there are two rounds of Premiership fixtures between Saturday and next Wednesday. This weekend kicks off with Liverpool facing Arsenal at Anfield*, a match that is crucial for both teams and the league leaders will be hoping that they can once again dominate Brendan Rodgers men in midfield, which helped them defeat the Reds at the Emirates earlier in the season. The other halves of Merseyside and North London also meet on Sunday morning, as Spurs face Everton in a match that both teams need to win to remain a serious contender to finish in the top four. Norwich, who lost 7-0 at the Etihad in November, face Manchester City at Carrow Road; while when Manchester United meet Fulham, a side that is in desperate need of a win will be hoping to take advantage of opponents who are in poor form and have a manager who looks out of his depth, but who knows if the Cottagers can get actually beat the reigning champions. Elsewhere, there is a South Wales derby between Swansea and Cardiff, and an all claret-and-blue fixture featuring Aston Villa and West Ham; Steve Bruce will face his old club as Hull travel to Sunderland; Chelsea will seek revenge for their 2-0 defeat at St. James’ Park when they host Newcastle; Southampton entertain Stoke; and Crystal Palace take on West Brom at Selhurst Park.
*One important note for viewers in the United States, because of NBC’s coverage of the Sochi Winter Olympics, the live games have been shifted to other channels and those that are normally on NBCSN are being shown on the USA Network. Tottenham’s Sunday encounter with Everton is also on this channel, immediately following a House marathon, so if I wake up too early I could spend hours shouting “It’s not Lupus!” at Hugh Laurie, before loudly complaining at Tim Sherwood that if he’s looking for a dominating holding midfielder “It’s not Bentaleb!”
Last week, 4-6; Season, 124-116
Home teams listed first
Liverpool vs Arsenal – Draw
Aston Villa vs West Ham – Draw
Chelsea vs Newcastle – Home win
Crystal Palace vs West Brom – Home win
Norwich vs Manchester City – Away win
Southampton vs Stoke – Home win
Sunderland vs Hull – Draw
Swansea vs Cardiff – Home win
Tottenham vs Everton – Away win
Manchester United vs Fulham – Home win